This is the fifth in a series of extracts from “A glorious High Throne”, a readable Bible commentary on Hebrews and is Ch. 41 of the original book. The series will cover the whole of Hebrews 11, the great New Testament chapter on the subject of faith.
Please read Hebrews 11:17-22
In the previous chapter we saw that Abraham and his family ‘died in faith’ — that is, they continued to believe up to (and in) the moment of their death. In the present passage the Writer brings home the full implication of these words. His unspoken question here is: ‘how does faith face death?’ The answer reveals yet another aspect of faith, namely, that it triumphs in trials, even over death itself.
Each of the cases cited in verses 17-22 confronts us with death or the prospect of death. In verses 17-19, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his only son Isaac. How does he react to this terrible trial? In verses 20-22 we meet Isaac, Jacob and Joseph facing their own impending death. What are their thoughts at such a solemn hour? The answers Hebrews gives to these questions are full of instruction, comfort and support. They will strengthen us as we ourselves face the end of a life on earth, whether our own or that of a loved one.
Once again, Abraham is our first example: ‘By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises offered up his only begotten son, of whom it was said, “In Isaac your seed shall be called”’ (11:17-18). The testing Abraham endured was three-fold. Firstly, he was called to give up his beloved and ‘only-begotten’ son. That in itself would be an enormous loss, as any parent will understand. The Writer deliberately calls Isaac ‘only-begotten’ in spite of the fact that Abraham had another son, Ishmael. Isaac was the only child of Abraham’s marriage to Sarah, and thus the only legitimate son. But the term ‘only-begotten’ also signifies that Isaac is a picture of Christ, of whom John writes: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life’ (Jn. 3:16). Abraham’s heart-rending decision to part with his son is an apt parable of God’s great love to a lost world.
Secondly, the Patriarch was tested in that he himself must wield the knife to kill his own son. What a dreadful prospect this must have been! Yet this is exactly what the Father did when he caused Christ to die to bear the sins of his people. The Almighty God cries: ‘“Awake, O sword, against my shepherd, against the Man who is my companion”, says the LORD of hosts’ (Zech. 13:7). Only by punishing his Son — an innocent substitute — could the Father punish sin and set the sinner free.
Thirdly, and perhaps hardest of all, Abraham was called to yield up the very promises that bound him to God! Lane comments: ‘When Abraham obeyed God’s mandate to leave Ur, he simply gave up his past. But when he was summoned to Mount Moriah to deliver his own son to God, he was asked to surrender his future’ . His promised posterity depended on the life of his son (‘in Isaac your seed shall be called’). In like manner, ‘the riches of the glory of [the Father’s] inheritance in the saints’ depended on the life of Christ (Eph. 1:18). If Jesus remained dead, none would be justified and the inheritance would be void (Rom. 4:25).
Before we see how these dilemmas were resolved, let us notice one thing — testing is an intrinsic part of the believer’s experience. Indeed, James goes as far as to say: ‘My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces patience’ (Jas. 1:2-3). Peter adds his own words of comfort: ‘now, for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, although it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honour and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ’ (1 Pet. 1:6-7). As a precious metal survives the fire that purges it of dross, so faith survives testing and is purified thereby. God takes pains with his believing children.
The solution (11:19)
But how exactly did Abraham cope with this threefold trial? ‘By faith’, says Hebrews. James concurs, adding that genuine faith results in works — works that both please God and vindicate its nature as justifying faith. He writes: ‘Faith without works is dead. Was not Abraham … justified by works when he offered up Isaac …? Do you see that faith was working together with his works, and by works was made perfect [complete]? And the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness”’ (Jas. 2:21-23).
Abraham did indeed believe God, ‘concluding that God was able to raise [Isaac] up, even from the dead’ (11:19). The word ‘conclude’ means ‘reckon (as on a fact)’ and is related to our English word ‘logic’. When the bombshell struck, and Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac, his faith was immediately engaged. But he also wrestled mentally with the huge problem that confronted him and reached a clear conclusion — that God could and would raise the slain Isaac from the dead.
This is an important point because faith is so often viewed, even by Christians, as the negation of reason or logic. But, as we saw earlier (see comment on 11:3) there is neither conflict nor valid comparison between faith and reason, for they are quite different kinds of faculty. Faith provides spiritual information to which we can and should apply our rational minds.
It is both right and proper, then, that we should reason on the basis of what faith reveals. This is exactly what Abraham did. He asked himself how it was possible to reconcile the death of Isaac with the promise of God. One possible answer was that God had withdrawn the promise or changed his mind about it. But that could not be, for faith knows that ‘the gifts and calling of God are irrevocable’ (Rom. 11:29). What was the alternative? That God would demonstrate his acceptance of the sacrifice of Isaac by raising him from the dead!
Here lay not only the resolution of Abraham’s anguish but also an amazing insight into the redeeming work of Christ. For it is the resurrection of God’s Son that declares the sufficiency of his offering to justify the ungodly (Rom. 4:25). And, having taught Abraham one lesson concerning redemption, God gave him another! He restrained Abraham from slaying Isaac and provided a substitute in the form of a ram (Gen. 22:11-14). Perhaps this was the point at which, in particular, Abraham ‘saw’ Christ’s day and rejoiced (Jn. 8:56).
Of course, Isaac did not die. But nevertheless, Abraham ‘received him [from the dead] in a figurative sense’ (11:19) — ‘meaning, probably’, suggests Bruce, ‘in a manner that prefigures the resurrection of Christ’ . Abraham’s faith was rewarded in a most remarkable way. Not only was Isaac spared, but that which Abraham had surrendered in faith was restored to him abundantly. Consider the outcome. Abraham’s faith had stared death in the face and had triumphed. It had been vindicated and strengthened. Isaac also (who must have been a willing participant in the intended sacrifice) was also taught that God saves through the sacrifice of a substitute, even ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn. 1:29). The promise of God, which had seemed under such dire threat, was renewed and reinforced (Gen. 22:16-18). And Abraham learnt the glorious truth that ‘The LORD will provide’ (Gen. 22:14).
It would be difficult to imagine a more severe trial than Abraham and Isaac together suffered through this event. Yet they both believed God and proved him worthy of their trust. So may we, in all our own trials, including the test that death itself presents. For we have the promise of God that those who die in Christ will rise again to everlasting life and glory: ‘Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!’ (1 Cor. 15:49-57).
Old age (11:20-22)
The three verse that follow may seem something of an anti-climax after the drama on Mount Moriah. But life’s inevitabilities outnumber life’s dramas! And one of those inevitable events is the onset of old age and the approach of death. How does faith react to these things? With confidence concerning the future — a future revealed by God. The Writer’s examples are Isaac, Jacob and Joseph. All three were enfeebled and approaching death, but rather than indulge in self-pity — or even reminiscences — they all looked forward to things that were yet to come. In doing so they blessed and encouraged those they would shortly leave behind.
‘By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau concerning things to come’ (11:20). Remarkably, though he had been tricked into blessing Jacob as the first-born, Isaac did not retract his benediction. He saw by faith that even Jacob’s deceit lay within the sovereign providence of God, whose purposes would be fulfilled despite man’s perfidy. He saw that Jacob, sinner that he was, would be changed and become God’s instrument to carry forward both the lineage and faith of Abraham. Had not God so promised when he said: ‘the older shall serve the younger’ (Gen. 25:23)? Owen writes: ‘We may see herein the infinite purity of the divine will, effectually accomplishing its own purpose and designs through the failings and miscarriages of men, without the least mixture with or approbation of their iniquities …’ . For all his failings, Isaac understood that God’s purpose does not change: ‘God is not a man that he should lie, nor a son of man that he should repent. Has he said and will he not do it? Has he spoken and will he not make it good?’ (Num. 23:19).
In course of time, it was Jacob’s turn. ‘By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of the sons of Joseph, and worshipped, leaning on the top of his staff’ (11:21). Just as Isaac had unwittingly blessed his younger son above the older, so now Jacob knowingly repeats the action, laying his right hand on the younger Ephraim rather than the first-born Manasseh (Gen. 48:14-20). He knew from his own experience that God’s choice prevails over man’s, and that his purposes are irreversible. He ‘worshipped’ in that he ascribed ultimate worth or value to his covenant-keeping God — not just to the promises but to the One who made them. In his frailty, Jacob leaned upon his staff — but in his faith he leaned on the sovereign God. As Lane remarks: Jacob’s faith consisted in the conviction that God’s designs were invincible and that the promises were being worked out under God’s care’ .
The final example of dying faith is provided by Joseph: By faith Joseph, when he was dying, made mention of the departure of the children of Israel, and gave instructions concerning his bones’ (11:22). This man who had experienced such remarkable providences throughout his life, remembered God’s promise to his great grandfather and knew it would be kept — ‘Know certainly that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and will serve its people and be afflicted by them four hundred years. And also the nation whom they serve I will judge; afterwards they shall come out with great possessions’ (Gen. 15:13-14). Joseph had no intention of missing the Exodus to the promised land (Gen. 50:24-26), even though only his bones would make the journey!
What do these vignettes of dying Patriarchs tell us about faith? They reveal men who saw a future for themselves, even beyond death, because of the promises of God. That future lay, firstly, in their descendants, who would play a vital role in the fulfilment of God’s plan of redemption and the outworking of his gracious purposes in human history. Even detailed things, like the ascendancy of one son over another, were significant to them, for God had shown it to them. Their progeny, along with the prophecies and benedictions they bestowed on them, would perpetuate their testimony and so imbue their brief lives with eternal meaning.
But their faith saw even further. Not only would their descendants carry forward the purposes of God, but those purposes would culminate in Christ, through whom they also would inherit the ‘promised land’ of personal salvation. As we have seen, they sought a city in heaven, not upon earth. They anticipated Jesus’ words: ‘Let not your heart be troubled … In my Father’s house there are many mansions; … I go to prepare a place for you’ (Jn. 14:1-2). And this faith-born knowledge energised their souls, even as their bodies weakened and died. For the dying believer, ‘the path of the just is like the shining light, that shines ever brighter unto the perfect day’ (Prov. 4:18) — for the best is yet to be.
1. Lane 2 p.360
2. Bruce p.312
3. Owen 7 p.122
4. Lane 2 p.365